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Lost somewhere among the polling, celebrity advertisements, and talk-radio blowhards sits a ten-year-old diabetic.  Lost somewhere among the debates, the donations, the down-to-the-wire phone banks stands a bright talented graduate student deciding in what field to build her career.  And lost somewhere among abortion rights and national health care reform sits stem cell research, not as a political bludgeon but as a real policy that will affect the course of American science for a generation.  

We've learned that when it comes to swinging votes, when it comes to revealing candidates' real values, when it comes to driving a wedge between hard-right fundamentalists and true compassionate conservatives, stem cells are important for this election.  But the question remains:  is this election important for stem cells?

After all, the House and Senate already passed a bill last summer that authorizes federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.  That bill was vetoed by President Bush.  Does the McCaskill-Talent Senate race in Missouri, where stem cells have become a battlefield issue, really make a difference?  How many more pro-research Senators do we need?  

The answer is 4.  But only if we get another 50 Representatives in the House.  That's what it would take to override the President's veto.  Is that likely to happen?  If we don't get those numbers, is there anything else an even stronger pro-research Congress can do?  The answers are "probably not," and "ab-so-fucking-lutely."

Stem cells in the Senate

The stem cell funding authorization bill passed the Senate 63 to 37.  We need 67 votes to override a veto.

Among the Nays, there are 8 Senators up for re-election next week.  They are Allen (VA), Burns (MT), DeWine (OH), Ensign (NV), Kyl (AZ), Santorum (PA), Talent (MO), and Thomas (WY).  The ones in bold are ones I consider possible or likely to flip from Nay to Yea.  Burns is quite likely to be replaced by the apparently pro-research Tester; DeWine will be replaced by the pro-research Brown.  (Santorum will be replaced by the anti-research Casey, leaving Pennsylvanians in the awkward position of being represented by a pro-research Republican and an anti-research Democrat.)

It seems the two variables that make an anti-research politician reconsider his views are (1) having a close relative with a devastating but potentially curable disease, and (2) re-election.  On the first of course I can wish only for the health and well-being of everyone dear to the Senators, but for the second I would take special note of Coleman (MN), Cornyn (TX), and Sununu (NH), each of whom is up for re-election in 2008 and each of whom comes from a state where the other Senator voted Yea.  Based solely on those criteria, I would consider these the three softest Nays.

Among the Yeas, the vote of Frist (TN) will be replaced by either the pro-research Ford or the anti-research Corker.  Overall, then, to reach an override in the Senate we need to take Montana and Ohio, as well as maintaining and gaining pro-research Senators in Tennessee, Virginia, and Missouri.  Failing that, we may turn our eyes to mounting pro-research challenges in Minnesota, Texas, and New Hampshire to encourage those Senators to re-think their positions before 2008.

I cannot emphasize enough how important the outcome of Claire McCaskill's race in Missouri is.  She has placed stem cells front and center in the state of Missouri, where voters next week will not only elect a new Senator but will also vote on pro-research Amendment 2, which guarantees stem cell research will be protected in the state.  The top of McCaskill's web page is taken up by the Michael J. Fox ad, and she has made it clear that a vote for her is a vote in favor of research.  A victory in this race not only gives us another Yea vote but also sends a signal to all politicians that the atmosphere has changed: that voters will not tolerate politicians who put fealty to the President above science, medicine, and the public well-being.  I encourage you to help McCaskill get out the vote and provide funds for her efforts.

Stem cells in the House

Unfortunately, a veto override vote in the Senate would mean very little without two-thirds of the House to back it up.  The stem cell bill passed the House last July by a vote of 235 to 193.  Thus, we would need to flip about 50 Yeas to Nays (and get the non-voters who support research -- Evans (IL-17), Gutierrez (IL-4), Lewis (GA-5), and McKinney (GA-4) -- to show up and vote) in order to bring federally funded stem cell research back to this country.

The House is difficult to handicap because there are so many members to track and polling is relatively sparse.  I'm going mainly by Mimikatz's latest analysis in her outstanding series summarizing the national picture week-by-week at The Next Hurrah.

From Mimikatz's analysis, I see about 15 districts where a representative who voted Nay may be replaced by a Democrat.  Those incumbents were Beauprez, Chabot, Chocola, Cubin, Fitzpatrick, Harris, Hayworth, Hostettler, Kennedy, Ney, Nussle, Reynolds, Sherwood, Sodrel, and Taylor (NC).  There's another 10 or so that optimistically might be taken over by Democrats:  Hart, McMorris, Musgrave, Osborne, Otter, Pombo, Renzi, Ryun, Schmidt, Souder, and Tiberi.  I haven't gone race-by-race to figure out where an anti-research incumbent might be replaced by a pro-research Republican or if any of the Democrats in these races are themselves anti-research.  But, figure a best case scenario where something like 25 new Congresspeople vote Yea and those 4 non-voters show up.  That gets us close to 30 more votes, but still about 20 votes short of a veto override.

Here, again, is where Claire McCaskill's campaign in Missouri plays in.  Claire is situated to become the poster child for candidates swept into office on a wave of voters who support publicly funded science research and reject fundamentalist anti-science dogma and the politicization of science, from stem cells to evolution to global warming.  Facing a lame duck President with even lamer national approval, facing a public demanding that science be held above politics, demanding that America pursue every avenue to cure disease, are there 20 more Congresspeople who might think twice before voting Nay, before cutting off that hope, before giving their constituents a big middle finger and the President a kiss on his foot?  It's not likely that we'll get a veto override in the House.  But it's not impossible.

The path to stem cells

After the polling, the campaigning, the vote-counting is over, people will continue to get sick with diseases we can't cure.  Scientists will continue to work on understanding the fundamental principles of life, giving doctors new ideas for how to help the sick get well.  The mid-term election won't change that.  No matter what happens, most of the cures will likely come from biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

But the speed with which those ventures progress depends critically on the basic science that we invest in.  As I've argued before, public money is best spent on basic research not diseases -- questions like, "How can a cell divide forever?," "How can a single cell divide to give two different types of cell?," and "How does a cell decide whether to be a nerve cell, a pancreas cell, a blood cell, or something else?"  The answers to these simple questions are what is being held back by the President's anti-research restrictions, and the understanding that comes from those answers is what will allow the field to move forward.  Curing Parkinson's is great, but first you need to understand the problem.  That's what academic researchers are good at, and what is too risky for most private companies to invest in.  (Disclaimer: I'm an academic scientist, although I don't do anything with stem cells.)

Some of that can happen without a stem cell bill.  Increasing NIH funding is part of it -- President Bush is the first President since Nixon to cut the NIH budget, and the consequences have been painful throughout public research. That is something that we can reasonably expect next year's Congress to fix, and that will help.  But to understand stem cells, we need to be able to work with stem cells.  State funding initiatives, like that set up in California, are terrific and I think they make science funding healthier overall in the long term, but they are not enough.  

The chances of getting a stem cell bill past President Bush next year are slim.  The chances of overriding his veto in 2008 are better, but decidedly iffy.  (If he is impeached, of course, we needn't worry about his veto.)  Are there ways to restore stem cell funding without a stem cell bill?  There is no law barring stem cell research -- there is a 1996 law that prevents the creation or destruction of embryos for research, but it allows the use of any new stem cell lines derived by industry, foreign labs, or other non-federal sources.  In 2001 Bush issued a Presidential directive to NIH (which is in the executive branch) telling them not to fund any research using new stem cell lines.  (Excellent background material here.)  From what I understand, the President could issue a directive not to fund any research that supports evolution -- anything that Congress hasn't explicitly authorized, he is free to restrict -- and because the directive is confined to the executive branch, a legal challenge is all but pointless.  

I'm not convinced there are no ways around it.  For example, I could imagine a bill that says "NIH is authorized to fund any research not prohibited by Congress."  Make it part of a Scientific Integrity Act, and include other worthwhile restrictions like prohibiting the White House from editing scientific reports, as they have done in the past for global warming, and preventing them from attempting to restrict funding based on political ideology, as they have attempted for studies of HIV transmission.  This approach shifts the debate from stem cells to executive-versus-legislative powers, and places it within the frame of Presidential overreaching, along with torture and illegal wiretaps.  All of it is aimed at preventing the politicization of science -- who in Congress is going to stand up to vote in favor of politicizing science and Presidential overreaching?  

There are other real policy issues that will come before this Congress, that have been stifled until now.  Genetic nondiscrimination.  Restoring the Office of Technology Assessment, a nonpartisan group that reports on scientific issues to Congress and that Gingrich dismantled in 1995.  It remains authorized, but unfunded, and a Democratic Congress should bring it back.  NIH funding.  All of these depend on increasing the number of pro-research Congresspeople.

Those efforts will be pushed by us, by the voters, but also by new groups like Scientists and Engineers for America.  I spoke by phone with a member of the SEforA Board of Directors for this post, and I want to acknowledge how helpful that conversation was for the background.  They are there as a resource for all of us, if you are writing on science and have a question post it at their blog or their discussion group on facebook (apparently you don't need to be in college to join facebook anymore, who knew?).  Groups like SEforA will be carrying this fight forward and holding Congress to its promises -- I encourage you to join them (you don't need to be a scientist).  This week they will be launching a major buy of banner ads on local news sites targeting specific races, and I'm told that money you give them now will be put directly into that effort -- a one-stop shop for you to help promote pro-research candidates.

Stem cells are becoming an important part of our political campaigns; we need to make sure they become an important part of our policy-making as well.  It's important for American science, and for American values -- for rationalism, for a belief in truth over ideology.  It's important for all of us who have had someone close suffering from a disease that is waiting to be cured.  I've read many of the comments on this topic in the past week and was struck by how even a relatively small community like ours has such a very large number of people affected by Alzheimer's, by Parkinson's, by diabetes and MS and ALS, by diseases whose best hopes for treatment lie in the future that will come out of a basic understanding of how stem cells work.

We need to keep telling those stories.  I'm grateful to those of you who have told us about your experience, how fromer's grandfather had Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, like draftchrisheinz's great-grandfather, the Alzheimer's sufferers like blue jersey mom's mother, the Parkinson's sufferers like not one but two of Boris Godunov's grandparents, smugbug's boyfriend's father, peteri2's grandfather, Fletch17C's grandfather, gatorcog's father, Keone Michael's grandmother and aunt, Jon Meltzer's mother and grandmother, TheGardener's loved one, True Blue Tar Heel's father, Trim Your Bush's uncle, mickT's father, Pandoras Box's brother, Dirk McQuigley's grandfther and uncle, Vince Hill's grandmother and aunt, emptywheel's mom, Rinaldo Migaldi's mother, nsrider's grandmother, and BoxerDave's mother, the diabetes sufferers like 2dems4life's mother, the ALS sufferers like geordie's aunt, the MS sufferers like varro's mom and Webster's close friend's mom.  I'm grateful to those members of our community who have shared their personal experiences and how they feel about seeing stem cell research choked, like kilo50 and Timroff who each have diabetes, and the admirable ALS Fighter who, of course, has ALS.

These are not rare diseases.  These are not trivial ailments.  These are life-destroying, expensive, terrifying illnesses.  Stem cells, as an issue, reveal politician's values -- but stem cells, as biology, reveal an important part of the future of American science and medicine.  When that future arrives will be determined, in part, by next week's election.  We need to put up a giant neon sign that says "Vote against stem cells, vote against research, vote against science, and you will be replaced."  

The place for that sign is Missouri.

Originally posted to emptypockets on Sat Oct 28, 2006 at 01:51 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I dunno (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    A strong enough wave in November may cause some of the Rethugs who voted no, to switch their vote next time around in the House.  If the Dems pick up say 30-40 seats, we could well find the additional votes to override out of nowhere due to the swing.

    I also believe if an override looks likely, W will sign the bill, and just allocate none of the money for stem-cell research.  

    •  allocating money (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bronte17, cookiebear, powwow500

      as an optimist, I agree with you, but I would say that winning 30-40 seats changes everything.  If the outcome is more in line with current predictions, and we take the House with a modest majority but not enough to override a veto, well -- hope for the best, plan for the worst.

      As to allocating the money, currently that is done by scientists at NIH.  (Or, more accurately, scientists review grant proposals and rank them by quality, and administrators then go through and fund as many as they can.)  So Bush would have to fundamentally change the structure of NIH funding to specifically block stem cell research -- at least, that is my guess, I could be wrong.

  •  On another note (0+ / 0-)

    I wouldn't completely rule out the possibility of changing Casey's mind either.  Bob Casey has come out in favor of Plan B including supporting the FDA ruling to put it over the counter, as well as coming around to back civil unions.  So it wouldn't be imposible for him to reconsider his opposition of stem cell research as well.

    •  from the Casey link in the post above (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      he said,

      As a U.S. Senator, I will strongly support funding for stem cell research that doesn’t destroy an embryo.  There are many promising techniques under development that don’t require destroying the embryo and there’s good reason to hope that soon we’ll be able to remove the politics from this issue.

      In fact, destroying an embryo has been illegal since 1996, so it's true that he might be persuaded to vote in favor of allowing research on new stem cell lines that are derived by private funding or by labs in other countries (or California).

      Specter has been great on this issue, I do have hope that between his influence at home in Pennsylvania and pressure from the Democratic leaders in the Senate that Casey will reconsider his position.

  •  excellent (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cookiebear, vcmvo2

    and note that changing the landscape has been known to change a few representative's party, let alone change their vote on something as popular with the public as stem cell research.

    "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies." - Groucho Marx

    by Greg Dworkin on Sat Oct 28, 2006 at 02:00:30 PM PDT

  •  This is a superb idea (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cookiebear, buddabelly, PatsBard

    I could imagine a bill that says "NIH is authorized to fund any research not prohibited by Congress."  Make it part of a Scientific Integrity Act, and include other worthwhile restrictions like prohibiting the White House from editing scientific reports, as they have done in the past for global warming, and preventing them from attempting to restrict funding based on political ideology, as they have attempted for studies of HIV transmission.

    At least make it a political wedge issue. Expand the science debate to science itself and peel off all but the most backwards fundie.

    This is the way democracy ends Not with a bomb But with a gavel -Max Baucus

    by emptywheel on Sat Oct 28, 2006 at 02:02:07 PM PDT

    •  thanks (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I don't really want to debate when life begins or whether a discarded embryo from in vitro fertilization is worth more than a 70-year-old with Alzheimer's.  We've had that debate, and few opinions are changing.

      I'd rather talk about the politicization of science, which is what all of the Republican war on science is really about.

      By the way, I just emailed the link to this post to the leadership of SEforA and happened to include exactly the paragraph you excerpted for their consideration.

  •  Santorum is going to lose. (0+ / 0-)

    So, go ahead, add that to your win list!

    Pro-Choice and Proud of It!

    by powwow500 on Sat Oct 28, 2006 at 02:23:24 PM PDT

  •  Im not sure exactly how, but (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    the Fox Ad and the controversy surrounding it seems to have hurt Amend 2 and McCaskill. Amend 2 will probably still pass, but right now I think Talent has the lead. Hopefully theyll do something before the election so people understand the issue and will realise theyve been lied to by conservatives, Limbaugh, etc... I think though that maybe the immediate reaction to that ad was that it went a little overboard and was manipulative. Thats the only thing I can think of to explain how the polls have moved there. Theres still time though.

    •  Amendment 2 (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      that is a real shame.  I hope that it swings back -- can you give some more background on Amendment 2?  From the little I understand, it doesn't provide any funding -- it's more like a safety belt to keep the legislature from at some point in the future imposing stem cell restrictions tighter than even the federal gov't's.  is that right?

      it seems fairly tame, in other words, and hard to really be against.  what are the opposition ads like?

      •  Im not positive, Im not there either, (0+ / 0-)

        I live in Pennsylvania. The only negative ad I know about is the one with the athletes, Jim Caviezel, and Patricia Heaton. Thats why I was so shocked to see what the response seems to have been to the Fox ad and the fallout surrounding it. Like I said, I dont think its bad enough to defeat Amend 2, but it may end up to costing McCaskill the election.

        All I know about Amend 2 is that it makes cloning a baby illegal, but allows the cloning of blastocysts, and makes sure researchers in Missouri will be allowed to recieve federal funds. I dunno know much more, Ill have to read more about it myself.

      •  There's no funding (0+ / 0-)

        Here’s the actual text of the Amendment and here’s what the voters will see on the ballot:

        A "yes" vote will amend the Missouri Constitution to allow and set limitations on stem cell research, therapies, and cures which will:
        • ensure Missouri patients have access to any therapies and cures, and allow Missouri researchers to conduct any research, permitted under federal law;
        • ban human cloning or attempted cloning;
        • require expert medical and public oversight and annual reports on the nature and purpose of any stem cell research;
        • impose criminal and civil penalties for any violations; and
        • prohibit state or local governments from preventing or discouraging lawful research, therapies and cures.
        A "no" vote would not ensure that stem cell research permitted under federal law is allowed to be conducted in Missouri and that Missouri patients have access to stem cell therapies and cures permitted under federal law.
        This measure will have no impact on taxes.

        Support Claire McCaskill and defeat Jim Talent

        by maryb2004 on Sat Oct 28, 2006 at 04:09:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I stand corrected. (0+ / 0-)

          I knew "federal" had something to do with it, but its not about funding.

          Its sounds like a perfectly reasonable amendemnt, I cant imagine it losing (if people take the time to actually read what it says).

          •  Lies (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            If Amendment 2 fails it will be because of the lies from the opposition. They keep saying the research will be funded by taxes, which is a lie. They insist the amendment allows cloning, which is specifically forbidden in the amendment. They keep saying women will sell their eggs, which is a painful procedure that can cause permanent damage to the woman. The amendment (or previous law, not sure) specifically forbids the buying of eggs.


            My mother-in-law, who should be a big supporter of stem cell research, said tonight that "it's not right to change the constitution for this". I guess she is voting no. I can't even talk to her anymore. Too many arguments in the past. The sad thing is she has PKD, an inherited kidney disease, which runs rampant in her (our) family. I believe stem cell research has promise for curing PKD.

            sigh, again

    •  Talent doesn't have the lead (0+ / 0-)

      Except for one outlier poll in favor of McCaskill, every single poll has been within the margin of error (sometimes they show Talent ahead and sometimes they show McCaskill, but they are all within the margin of error).  

      There was an article that said the "Democratic consultants" were concerned about a possible backlash.  It didn't identify the consultants or give us anything but their opinion.

      This race isn't over.

      Support Claire McCaskill and defeat Jim Talent

      by maryb2004 on Sat Oct 28, 2006 at 04:12:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Im going by what Ive heard in the news (0+ / 0-)

        and what I read at on their blog. It looked to me like there was big movement after the ad toward Talent and against Amendment 2. Maybe its not as bad as it looked though, I hope it isnt.

        •  Rally (0+ / 0-)

          I was at a rally today where Claire spoke. She told us that in Sunday's Post-Dispatch, they will report on a poll that shows Talent and McCaskill exactly tied. I forget if she said 47 to 47 or 48 to 48, but tied.

    •  Disagree (0+ / 0-)

      The Fox ad helped here in Missouri.  The Republican talking points get picked up by the mainstream media and repeated.  But Talent is running ads now in which he personally explains his opposition to stem cells and says he is for science - and he shows research on sickle cell anemia he supported.  He is trying to minimize the effect of the Fox ad.  If the Fox ad were not huring him, we would not be seeing these new ads.  Look at what the campaigns actually do, not what self-appointed pundits and pollsters say.  

      Stem Cells help Claire.  That's why she ran the ad.  

      Wait until next week, you'll see.  Claire will win this election by 1 to 2%.

  •  Interesting that in the latest Rothenberg (0+ / 0-)

    Senate rankings released just yesterday, Missouri is listed as ''LEAN TAKEOVER'':


    Does he know something we don't?

  •  I Challenge My Fellow Kossacks! (0+ / 0-)

    As many of my fellow kossaks know I have been consistently agitating for greater embryonic stem cell ("hESC") research. I personally know many of the folks from Missouri and they are some of the most dedicated proponents of the vital area of medical science. Most of them are just trying to save the lives of their loved ones--let's give them one more push.

    This isn't about "Big Bio," but about saving lives. And to that end, let's put our money were are mouths are.

    Earlier today I donated $500 to Claire McCaskill's campaign. I now challenge my fellow Kossaks to do the same.

    Who is going to match me? If you're up to the job, Click here to follow through.

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